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11 Common Writing Mistakes (and How to Fix Them)

Writing well is a big part of professional success.

PeopleImages / Getty Images
PeopleImages / Getty Images

In the professional world, your writing is important. You use it on a daily basis to express yourself and your ideas, and the way it’s received matters.

It makes sense, then, to ensure that you’re doing everything possible to be received well. Here are some of the most common writing mistakes and how to fix them:

1. Using quotation marks to add emphasis

For some reason, this one seems to be gaining popularity despite the fact that it’s incorrect. When you want to highlight or emphasize something, make sure to use italics, not quotation marks. Thus:

Incorrect: Quotation marks are “only” used to cite exact words used by someone.
Correct: Quotation marks are only used to cite exact words used by someone.

2. Who vs. that

This one is pretty straightforward. If it’s a person or an animal with a name, use who. If it’s an inanimate object or animal without a name, use that. Thus:

Incorrect: The woman that just came into the office is my friend.
Correct: The woman who just came into the office is my friend.

3. There vs. Their vs. They’re

This one, which makes it onto almost all of these kinds of lists, still trips people up, so it’s worth outlining. It’s also quite noticeable, so you want to make sure you get it right:

  • There is a location, physical or otherwise (“The apple is right there”)
  • Their is possessive (“Their house”)
  • They’re is the contraction of “they are” (“They’re very nice”)

Here’s a hack: if you’re not sure, Google the phrase you want to use.

4. Toward vs. Towards

This can be a hotly contended subject in grammar Nazi circles, but the logic is actually quite simple. In American English, you use “toward.” In British English, it’s “towards.”

Thus in the U.S., you’d say, “She moved toward the exit.” In England, it would be, “She moved towards the exit.”

5. This is her/him vs. This is s/he

If someone calls you and says, “Is this Francesca?” the correct response is, “Yes, this is she” (assuming you are actually Francesca). You don’t say, “Yes, this is her.”

The trick is to remember that you’d never say “Her is answering the phone”–it would always be, “she is answering the phone.”

6. Putting punctuation outside of quotation marks

This is another regional difference. In British English, punctuation goes outside quotation marks, while in American English they always go inside. Thus:

American English: The CEO said, “The company is slowly recovering from the setback,” but employees were less than convinced.

British English: The CEO said, “The company is slowly recovering from the setback”, but employees were less than convinced.

7. Using a hyphen (-) instead of a dash (-)

Hyphens connect two words into one, usually forming an adjective. Examples: state-of-the-art, friendly-looking, cruelty-free.

A dash is used within a sentence to demonstrate that you’re switching temporarily to a separate thought. Example: Unbelievably, Kelly–the unluckiest woman at the company–won the office pool.

Pro tip: if you’re on a Mac, the shortcut to create a dash is to hold down Option and the minus sign located at the top of the keyboard. You’re welcome.

8. Comma splice

Ah, the dreaded comma splice. This is a common and often ubiquitous mistake:

Incorrect: Maria left the last conference session, she couldn’t stand the speaker.
Correct: Maria left the last conference session, for she couldn’t stand the speaker.

The technical grammar rule: A comma can’t connect two independent clauses unless it has the help of a coordinating conjunction. Put more simply, you can’t connect two separate thoughts with just a comma.

To avoid a comma splice, either use a semicolon to connect the two phrases, or use a conjunction. The full list of conjunctions can be remembered by the acronym FANBOYS, which stands for: for, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so.

9. Missing a comma after an intro phrase

The opposite of the comma splice, this is the kind of mistake that leaves the reader feeling breathless, like there is no natural break in the rhythm of the sentence:

Incorrect: After she left the office she ran into Fran.
Correct: After she left the office, she ran into Fran.

The easy fix for this is to read your work aloud (quietly to yourself). Places you pause naturally usually take a comma.

The other common mistake associated with this is sentences that include a subject at the end, such as:

Incorrect: “Thank you for attending gentlemen.”
Correct: “Thank you for attending, gentlemen.”

10. Was vs. Were

In English, when you’re talking about a hypothetical situation or something you hope for, you’ve got to use the subjunctive. Most people usually get this right when they’re talking about someone else. Thus most people know it’s, “I was hoping they would come to the party,” and not, “I was hoping they will come to the party.”

However, things tend to get confused when the subject is oneself. Thus:

Incorrect: If I was rich, I’d fly first class.
Correct: If I were rich, I’d fly first class.

The same goes for other singular subjects:

Incorrect: I wish she was more helpful.
Correct: I wish she were more helpful.

11. Semicolons

Semicolons are used either to connect two separate clauses, or to help list a group of items.

The first scenario:

Incorrect: I like to spend time with the team; which means I can’t stand not being in the loop.
Correct: I like to spend time with the team; I can’t stand not being in the loop.

If each half of the sentence can form complete sentences on their own, you can use a semicolon. If not, they must be connected by something other than a semicolon.

Semicolons are also used to make lists when items have punctuation within them. Thus:

Incorrect: They’re looking to establish more learning opportunities for students, who’ve said that’s what they want, more excitement for the teachers, who, quite frankly, are bored at the moment, and more team-building overall.

Correct: They’re looking to establish more learning opportunities for students, who’ve said that’s what they want; more excitement for the teachers, who, quite frankly, are bored at the moment; and more team-building overall.

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